Differentiating the Signal from the Noise – a/k/a Determining if a Self-Defense Class is Crap


The age of the internet has spawned a tremendous amount of flow and access to information. Literally, everything you want and need to know about can be found in some form or another on the internet. The problem is that literally everything you don’t want and don’t need to know about can also be found on the internet.

Clearly, this situation creates a problem. The problem is having the ability to separate the Signal of valuable information from the Noise of invaluable or worse harmful information. How does one differentiate the Signal from the Noise when they don’t have enough knowledge to tell the difference?

One method is to use Knowledge by Proxy. Find someone who you feel as enough knowledge on the subject to be able to make the determination for you. This is an effective method when you have the time and opportunity to do so.

The real problem arises when you are exposed to an onslaught of Signal and Noise and you need to make an on-the-spot determination. Noise has the effect of diluting and contaminating your pre-existing knowledge (Signal) leaving you more confused and less knowledgeable than you were before the exposure.

In terms of a self-defense class, the Noise is the crap that is disguised as Signal from potentially well intentioned instructors (or Snake Oil Salesman). Many times these instructors will have impressive sounding credentials that will lead you to believe they know what they are talking about.

Therefore, it is up to you to use your common sense to make the determination. Just because you may think that you don’t know anything about self-defense doesn’t mean you are incapable of filtering out the most offensive Noise. Here are some clues and indicators that will help you decide whether a certain set of self-defense instruction is crap.


1. The instruction is focused mostly on learning certain physical techniques. These techniques target the human body’s vulnerabilities and sensitive areas. These techniques are said and demonstrated to be devastatingly effective on simulated attackers. Yet, if you experiment by trying them on yourself, you are merely annoyed. Or said techniques are so dangerous they can only be practiced very slowly in order to not main or kill your training partner.

 2. The instruction has you acting in a manner you would not actually do in real life. For example, you (as a woman) are told that upon feeling threatened, wherever you are immediately drop to your back on the ground kick and scream rape. When in reality, you have felt threatened numerous times in your life and doubt you would respond in such a manner. Note: If you are violently thrown to the ground that is another matter entirely, kick and scream for all you are worth.

 3. The instruction has you using specific magic words and/or phrases that are said to be effective in drawing bystander attention to yourself while other words and phrases are deemed to be ineffective. For example, yelling “xxxx” works to create attention, but yelling “yyyy” does not. It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it that other people respond to.

 4. The presence of lots of laughing and giggling when students are executing said devastating techniques. The presence of nervous laughter in a self-defense class is common. Humor is an excellent teaching tool. But if the students are mostly cracking up while executing the techniques, then the conditioned emotion of silliness will be associated with the technique. It is unlikely you will be feeling silly upon being attacked.

 5. The instruction of techniques that do not account for the natural counter-reaction of the attacker. It is reasonable to assume that attackers have experience with assaulting people. As such, it is less likely that they will “freeze” in response to your action and more likely that you will freeze in response to their action. Therefore, if the instruction involves a sequence of movements in which you move five times to the attacker’s one movement, chances are you are wallowing knee deep in crap.

 6. The instructor continually uses the phrases “Always to this” and “Never to that”. Real life is filled with a tremendous amount of variability. There is little place for ALWAYS and NEVER as part of effective self-defense instruction. A laundry list of Do’s and Don’ts usually contains lots of Noise.


Students leave the class with the desire to test their new found fighting skills and kick some ass. Not only is this type of instruction Noise, it is toxic Noise at that. While confidence has been shown to be a deterrent to would-be attackers, active avoidance and pro-active de-escalation/deterrence strategies are even better deterrents. If your self-defense instruction left your feeling that fighting is fun because it is easy to knock out any and all attackers without consequence, then you are up to your neck in crap and about to go under.


That being said. All self-defense classes have value. Signal exists among the Noise. The mostly likely occurrence upon going to a self-defense class that consists of mostly physical techniques and lists of things to do and avoid is that you will forget them all anyway. What all self-defense classes have in common is that they encourage their students to take active steps toward increasing their personal safety. They provide their students with “permission” to fight back. This aspect is an effective Signal even if the rest is essentially Noise.



On Choosing a Self-Defense Instructor – Rory Miller

25 Indicators of Self-Defense Snake Oil Salesmanship – Erik Kondo

Hit My Buttons – Rory Miller

Learning ‘good self-defense material’ – Marc MacYoung

Leave a Reply